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5 Tips to Get You Started with Free-Motion Quilting

Quilters often struggle with free-motion quilting because they don’t know where to physically start. Here are five free-motion quilting tips to help you start on your home sewing machine.

1. Take the time to properly baste your quilt.

Spray basting a quilt top

Basting a quilt involves temporarily securing the three layers of a quilt (top, batting and backing) together so the fabric doesn’t bunch up or pucker.

If you choose to safety pin–baste your quilt, use more pins than you think you’ll need to prevent the layers from shifting. If you choose to baste your quilt with adhesive spray, spray the quilt top and backing rather than the batting for better results.

For both methods, basting on a large table rather than the floor will be easier on your back and it will provide better results. Taking the time to smooth out each layer before adding the next will also cut down on the number of lumps and bumps to quilt through.

2. Choose an easy, allover free-motion quilting texture that doesn’t require marking.

Pink and white quilt with loopy quilting

A free-form meander like stippling, loops or waves is a very forgiving design that can be quilted across the surface of the quilt quickly without the need for precision. Just like handwriting, one’s free-motion quilting “signature” can vary from person to person.

Start quilting anywhere along the edge of your quilt and work your way in toward the center of the quilt. Once there is too much bulk under the arm of the machine, rotate the quilt to complete the other side.

Be sure to quilt off the edge of the quilt occasionally to check your bobbin thread level. If it is low, replace it and start with a fresh bobbin. Then you don’t have to worry about running out of thread in the middle of the quilt. 

3. Stitch in the ditch before moving into free-motion techniques.

Christa Watson quilting navy quilt

If you choose to do custom work on your quilt, secure the quilt first by stitching in the ditch (quilting in between the seams) of all the columns and rows. This can be accomplished using a walking foot or integrated dual feed (available on some sewing machine models).

This will anchor your quilt, allowing you to add free-motion quilting in any section of the quilt later. If you can quilt from one edge of the quilt to the other, you will not need to bury your threads as you go.

4. Quilt all of one color first.

blue and gray quilt

When quilting with multiple thread colors, quilt all areas that require the same thread before switching out thread colors. Not only with your quilting be consistent in color, the amount of quilting will tend to be more even throughout the quilt.

5. When in doubt, add more quilting.

If you are unsure about your free-motion quilting results, add more quilting, making the designs a little more dense. The more sparsely quilted your quilt is, the more your eye will notice any imperfections. Conversely, the more quilting there is on your quilt, the easier it is to hide any little inconsistencies.

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Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2015 and was updated in 2018.

52 Comments

Denice

i have been taught to always start in the center of a quilt and work your way out to distribute any gaps in the backing toward the outside of the end of the quilt. I’ve never started at the end of a quilt, but would love to, as I believe it would make more even free-motion. Have you experienced any issues with starting to quilt at one end of the quilt and working toward the center?

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Christa Watson

Nope, I’ve never had any problems with this and basting well really helps!

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Michelle

i spray baste quilts, and begin at one end working from left to right, from one end to another! I like the way the FMQ is more even this way and integrated!

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Tina

I have and silly me, even though I glue basted and really did well it pushed the materials to the middle and I had to just go with it to the other side. But the result was a hump in the middle. Now I start in the middle and no problems so be warned

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woodsy

Same here Denice, always quilt from center out, too! However, I have learned that stitching th the ditch to anchor makes a HUGE difference. Once done, there are no more pins to sew around allowing the creativity to flow freely. A wash out dissolving thread or a clear thread hides the stitch in the ditch if you don’t want it to show in the finished project.

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Veronica

I roll my quilts diagonally and start quilting at one corner. I usually do a large stipple or meandering. Once I finish one “pass” from corner to corner, I simply roll up the bulk that is to the left of the machine and continue with the next section. The bulk of the quilt under the machine lessens as I finish each pass. I spray baste my quilts and have never been disappointed.

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Suzette

This sounds great, thanks Veronica

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Margrete Russell

Thanks Veronica.

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Julie

I never start in the center and have no issues. Once I have the borders quilted, I even bind it before finishing the quilting sometimes.

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Janet

You mention sewing off the side. I’ve wondered how the stitching is affected when you trim for binding and cut some of the stitch lines. Have you ever had your stitches come out or does the binding seam anchor those cut lines?

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Christa Watson

You are correct – the binding seam anchors the stitch lines.

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Carol Vout

do you use walking foot or darning foot to do your free motion quilting?

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Christa Watson

I use a darning foot for free motion quilting and a walking foot for straight quilting. I have a book coming out later this year “Machine Quilting With Style” that goes more in depth on the subject with lots of great patterns to try. It’s on amazon for presale now 🙂

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Jean Usner

Interesting and helpful. I have been quilting all of my quilts with both in the ditch and free motion, depending on the quilt for several years. There is always more to learn – never thought of replacing the bobbin at the edge. Also never thought of disappearing thread to anchor, getting rid of the pins – will try both of these ideas!

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Caraline Howden

From the Centre, Walking foot for straight lights darning (free motion foot) foot for all else. Never start at the top. always start in the middle that was there is less bulk as you move through the quilt. Better to get the worst piece out of the way first. Even if Im just quilting the sashing I start at the middle and work my way to the end turn around and work from the middle to the end. Pinning every four inches helps to secure your work. I put my backing on a board firm not stretched. then the batting, then the top. each piece is anchored by push pins, then quilt pin the as much as I can. then take the push pins out. I have not had one single pucker since doing this method

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Kay Shishido

the push pin method sounds like it would really help. Thanks for sharing

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Bonnie

This sounds like my ‘on the wall’ method. My husband anchored ceiling tiles to a long wall in my sewing room. I covered them with newspapers. I hang the backing first then spray baste the batting to it. The quilt top goes on and gets spray basted. Gravity works like an extra pair of hands. I use push pins along the edges of each layer as I go. I usually start at the top & middle and smooth outward as I go. This works great as a design wall as well.

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Debbie Wilson

i turn my sewing machine so I am sitting with my hands on each side of the sewing machine. I feel this gives me more freedom to meander when free motion quilting on my regular sewing machine.

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Lynne

What a neat idea about fmq with a hand on each side of the machine from the side. I’m anxious to try this. Kind of like having a “real” free motion machine. Thanks.

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Nancy

Interesting concept. I might have to try that one.

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Kay Shishido

I mite try that

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Suzette

I never thought of that! Great idea, thinking outside the box!

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Phyllis Bates

Thank you for this. I have a quilt all laid out and am kind of ignoring it because of just this thing. I will start on it tomorrow!

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Rose

I have never made a quilt but I have always wanted to.I really think this website is a wonderful idea. Thanks

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Rebecca

I use my rotary cutter to cut Stitch Witcher into little bits. (Switch Witcher comes on a roll and is usually used to tack up hems with a iron.) Next I lightly sprinkle a few pieces of the Stitch Witcher on the under site of the top and press it to the batting. Then repeat the process with the backing. One roll of Stitch Witchery is more than enough for a king size quilt. This holds the quilt better than and any method I’ve ever used. No pins to get in the way or remove. And you use so little you never even know it’s in the quilt.

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Karon

Fabulous – stitch witches – I am trying this tonight !

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Pam LOCUST

Haven’t made but one quilt & that was 30 years ago. A dear friend and I quilted this by hand. I would like to start something simple b it t pretty. My friend died 15 years ago but I will not be deterred. Suggestions please. .I am a retired nurse. All suggestions welcome. Love these sites.

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Ellen Rankin

I would say start small, Crib or lap quilts, Least for me, I did not feel overwhelmed…

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Denise

I would start with a small wall hanging or Dallas size quilt. They are cute and lay them on a back of a couch or chair an slowly move up in size as you feel comfortable. Good luck!

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Livia Boggs

Why not try a panel with simple blocks. Craftsy has some to choose from. They make beautiful quilts .

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marie schjeldahl

I know these comments are going to be really helpful to me. I am retired and just started quilting 10 months ago. Right now I am working on my 13th quilt.

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Yvonne Charles

I recently hand sewed the chevron quilt but need to finish it off with batting and backing> I need some suggestions about type of backing.I am thinking of using a small polka dot backing for contrast and I also want to do some sort of free hand . Just bought a machine and I am looking forward to taking some online classes and to enjoying my new hobby Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

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Donna Crawford

Love your suggestions on free motion quilting and viewers suggestions. Thanks.

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Karen

Love the suggestions but I still think it is safest to start in the middle as there is shrinkage based on the amount of quilting.

What ever you do, have fun and enjoy the process

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Jan

Thanks, Debbie for the idea of turning the machine and Rebecca for the idea of Stitch Witchery. Both great ideas. Appreciate all comments!

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Margaret Costa

all this information I wished I had

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Bonnie Lahman

I would like to do free motion quilting. but I cannot get my stitches to look even. Are there any hints on how to do that, or is a lot of practice the only way.

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Edie

I have taken 3 courses on free motion quilting and cannot seem to get my hands and feet to coordinate together. I have used STIPPLES MADE EASY, 301 and BORDERS MADE EASY, all different kinds and let me tell you, there are lines to follow but if you don’t stay in them no one will know and your quilts come out beautifully. The only downside is pulling the paper off after you quilt. You must pull the tape strips off immediately after you quilt each line but the rest of the paper can be pulled off at your leisure. My quilts come out great with the design on the paper and saves me money so I don’t have to pay someone to quilt it for me.

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Edie

Oops! I also forgot. I play around on a sample 12 inch quilt sandwich and try different size stitches. I usually now use a stitch betw. 0 & 1 with the stippling papers. You have to play around with the stitch size till you see one that looks pretty good on both sides.

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Marsha

I have only done FMQ on small projects such as table runners and wall hanging. Big projects scare me ! I think I just need more practice.

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Christine Kidney

Hi, can you tell me…
Do people ever just free motion the quilt top?

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Sally

Yes, I free motion many of my quilt tops. Always hesitant to start, but then enjoy it once I have a open mind!! I also use the 505 spray adhesive that I swear by!! I have never had a problem with it, but I was told to always spray the batting. FMQ is freedom of quilting as you don’t worry about going out of the ditch and they can’t tell if you made a mistake!! It’s just doodling with your needle instead of a pencil. Many times I get a pencil out and start a pattern on paper to see how the pattern flows. This also gets the pattern in my brain and makes the sewing and flowing easier.

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Judy Pechaski

Lot of useful tips.

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villa

Learning ALOT from all of you!!! Thank you for posting your knowledge! Enjoying it!

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Sarah (Sally) Dussing

Fascinated with all of the comments. I am “into” FMQ! I loathe stitch in the ditch, looks too amateurish when I am finished even though I have a fairly steady hand. Very much like the idea of turning the machine sideways placing a hand on each side which solves the problem of bulk in the “throat” of the machine. Thanks. Please comment on thread color when FMQ. Are we compulsive about color on the quilt back?

Also I am proficient in stippling, meandering, bubbles in sm, med, lg. What others are favorites and, with some practice, don’t require markings?

Where would we be without our quilt goomba’s?

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Maggie Lloyd

I am just teaching myself to sew. I am making quilts for my 5 grandchildren for Christmas. I have 4 tops finished. I am very nervous about finishing them. I don’t know that I have the skill to quilt them and have found that having them quilted at a quilt shop is very pricey. Any suggestions about how best to finish them for an absolute beginner would be appreciated!! Love this quilt by the way. It is so pretty.

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Lana Coiner

I appliqued using an iron on Pelon, sandwiched my quilt together, and now am unable to free motion the pieces because the needle is constantly breaking after only a few stitches. I have free motioned before and never had this happen, but not on appliqued material. Any suggestions? I have bought some denim needles and hope this might solve the problem but please forward any suggestions re applique or needles. Thanks!

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Esther

I find that I have needle problems whenever I use iron on adhesive like pellon because the needles get “gummed up” & get sticky. My needles pull out of the machine or break. I’ve recently read that we need to use titanium needles when sewing through these types of things because they don’t get “sticky”. This might help you, too.

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Rhonda Zsinor

I am a little nervous at the idea of quilting from the end of a quilt! Have never done it that way.

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Dottie

Please explain quilting the top vs. having the backing on? What is done then to make sure the backing is attached? Quilt again? That sounds like extra work. TIA

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CMC

I don’t think that’s what anyone meant, Dottie. Sometimes people say ‘quilt top’ but it’s actually the whole sandwich they are referring to. You would need to have the backing and batting on to ‘quilt’ otherwise it’s not actually quilting.

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Claudia

What is the name of the pattern in #2. It is the quilt with the pink/salmon/white solid pattern. Thank you.

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